Sunday, July 2, 2017

President to get tough with striking doctors: minister

article_imageSri Lankan patients wait for treatment at an empty government hospital in Colombo on May 5, 2017. Getty Images

ECONOMYNEXT – The government has ruled out further discussions with government doctors over private higher education as public anger mounted against striking medical officers, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said.

It has been suggested to the government that the authorities withdraw the concessionary duty facility to import motor vehicles for government doctors who are also engaging in private practice.

Declaring the health sector an essential service and confiscating property of striking medical officers is also on the cards, authoritative government sources said.

The cabinet of ministers discussed the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) trade union action last week and President Maithiripala Sirisena noted that he made no concessions whatsoever to the strikers, the minister said.

"The President made it very clear even before he sat down to the meeting (on June 24) that it was an unofficial, informal meeting, purely at the request of the doctors," Senaratne said. "The doctors had come for the meeting after ending their strike."

The cabinet was told Tuesday that the president would not show "any mercy" to the striking doctors who risked the lives of patients seeking free medical treatment at state hospitals.

The GMOA said a statement issued by the Presidential secretariat went against what the President had promised them, but the President’s office insisted that the statement was not a result of the meeting with the doctors’ union.

The then President’s Secretary P. B. Abeykoon went as far as to issue a correction on Tuesday denying a Sinhalese newspaper report which had said the government was going to re-draft a statement in favour of the GMOA demands.

Minister Senaratne said the GMOA had been desperate to end their strike because there was pressure building from within the rank and file against a prolonged work stoppage which also hurt their lucrative private practice.

GMOA members from the Western, Southern, North-Western, North-Central and the Northern provinces were unhappy with the current GMOA leadership and were in talks with the minister to form a breakaway trade union.

A consumer rights group said it believed that the doctors’ decision to call of the strike late last month came a day before they were due to invoke the wrath of gods on strikers who jeopardised the lives of patients in state hospitals.

"Whatever the GMOA leadership says, they were worried that there were going to be demonstrations outside their homes to invoke curses on them," a consumer rights activist said.

Consumer rights group, the National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection (NMCRP), was about to visit schools and meet teachers of striking doctors seeking the ostracise them.

NMCPR leader Ranjith Vithanage said the ostracizing campaign had huge public support and they were about to launch it when the GMOA decided to call off their strike.

A split in the GMOA turned violent last month when one doctor smashed a cup on the face of another breaking his nose. Ironically, the injured doctor had to be rushed to the National Hospital Colombo where his own colleagues were on strike.

GMOA spokesman Samantha Ananda said the President had agreed to take "positive steps" to resolve issues surrounding the private South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM).

"The president agreed to take steps to improve standards of medical education and the quality of the medical service," Ananda told reporters in Colombo, but later the GMOA changed its stance accusing the government of going back on promises allegedly made to them.

The SAITM was established in 2008 under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the GMOA began pressing action to scrap the SAITM only recently under the new government of President Sirisena.

GMOA members have said they did not protest earlier fearing physical violence during the Rajapaksa administration.

The GMOA argues that the education at SAITM is substandard and that many of its students do not have minimum qualifications for higher studies, a position challenged by the private college.